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This is probably the most mentioned title from the submissions from women to the Clarke Award.

It's a lot of fun and had it been short listed it would have been a worthy nominee that would have led to even more discussion. It's set somewhere in Arabia*, and tells the story of a young hacker who accidentally develops a programme that can identify any user from the content, pattern and signature of their work; stories of djinn rescuing young men, subverting authority and making females pregnant come in to the book as well; and finally it's a fairy tale in which the boy rescues the princess but marries the girl next door. Along the way we get a quote from The Return of the Jedi and a cameo appearance from Aladdin's genie.

The problem is that it really does lurch from sf to fantasy and back: one minute we are developing computer code, the next we are in a moving alley way with lots of markets and shops (Diagon Alley anyone?) inhabited by Djinn. The sf sections feel very Jon Courtenay Grimwood (that's a good thing), the fantasy sections feel rather Holly Black (also a good thing). All of this is supposed to be connected by a very important and very old book that can be connected by some sort of coding exercise, but it never quite hangs together. The book is quite consciously an attempt to link two traditions (and both Eastern and Western characters indulge in crass generalisations about each other in an attempt to do this by both being wrong) and yet....

The book on the short list that Alif the Unseen is most like, is Harkaway's Angelmaker: both try to merge magic with science, but, although as a reader I actively prefer Alif, it is Harkaway who does a better job of subverting this particular genre borderland.

*With quite a lot of the orientalism that this implies, even while it tries to go beyond that.


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